The Blog of John Hewitt

Say what you want to say and let your readers decide what it means

Most beginning poets spend too much time thinking about the intentions or themes of their poems. There are many different approaches to writing poetry. Some poets write highly structured poems. Some poets write poems about very specific subjects and have definitive goals about what they want their poem to do. While these approaches can produce great poems, I do not recommend them for beginning poets.

Young poets and those writing poetry for the first time often become frustrated because they cannot seem to say what they want to say. Many experienced poets have the same problem. Self-expression is not an easy task. The task becomes even harder when you start out with very specific goals or constraints. Writing a great sonnet is not easy. Writing a great villanelle is even harder. That does not mean you should not try, but do not expect immediate success and do not constrain yourself even further by deciding in advance exactly what to say.

You can sit down with a topic in mind. If you want to write about a certain landscape or situation, use that as a starting point. If it does not work, however, do not force it. Sometimes the poem you really want to write is sitting in the back of your mind, waiting for you to get out of its way.

This may seem to be the antithesis of the advice at the top of the page, but it must to be said before we can discuss the meat of my statement, which is that you need to feel free to write exactly what is on your mind. If you want to write about basset hounds or aluminum cans, you should write about them and say what you have to say. You may create a great poem or you may not. Not every poem you write will be great. No one writes perfectly. Even Shakespeare had off days.

Sometimes a poem will shift topics as you write it. Follow the new direction. The new direction may end up fitting your original theme in a way you did not expect, or you may decide to discard the first part of your poem to make way for the new thoughts. You may even find that the first part was right after all and what follows does not work. Whatever the situation, follow the direction a poem takes. You can always rewrite later.

Do not get trapped by worrying about whether a poem “makes sense”. If, when you finish, the poem feels right to you, then you have done what you needed to do. Feel satisfied with that. If you do not like the way the poem turned out, either rewrite it or write another poem. Do not expect perfection with every attempt.

At some point, if you are brave enough to let the world see your poems, you will discover that your readers do not recognize all the themes you intended for your poem and all the points you tried to make. They will also see things in your poem that you never intended. You need to accept that people can have different views about the same poem.

One of the great truths in creative writing is that a writer lacks the perspective to judge his or her own work. When you read your own poem, story, or any other piece of creative writing, you bring to it every thought that was in your head at the time you wrote it. When others read your work, they see the words on the page, not the thoughts you put behind the words. Your readers will also bring to your poem everything that is in their own head. Their interpretation of your poem can be valid, even if it does not agree with your interpretation.

Do not spend your time worrying about other people’s interpretations of your poetry. There will always be a difference between your intentions and other people’s interpretations. Say what you have to say. If people ask you what your poem means, feel free to tell them what was on your mind. If they try to tell you what they think your poem means, listen carefully. You do not have to agree with them, and you do not have to change anything about the way you write just because you think they got it wrong. Give their interpretation some thought and see if you think it is valid. If you do not, that is fine. Perspective is a wonderful thing. The more you have, the more you can use.